Remember Marc Andreessen? Perhaps not. But he played his part in the history of the Internet. Way back in 1993 he built X Mosaic, the first widely used Web browser. He’s now involved in social networking – building the software that is, rather than the actual getting out and meeting people. Ning is his latest project and TechCrunch, a blog that devotes itself to news of deals in the computer world, reports that it has just secured major funding.

Ning is unlike the mainstream social networking services like Facebook and MySpace in that you can create your own networks, or what MIT’s Technology Review calls ‘mini-MySpaces’ or ‘social nicheworks’. Ning is one of the growing band of what TechCrunch describes as ‘white label’ social networking sites: ones in which Ning provides the networking infrastructure and then steps back, allowing the user to build, customise and brand their own network.

You can create a new social network in a few minutes by simply registering with the site and adding a few details such as the name of the proposed network. I set up one for TechLunch ( in ten minutes as an experiment. You can edit the layout of the social network homepage, add your own branding and lots of little features like a blog, embedded video from YouTube or a discussion forum. You can also create groups within your network. So, for example, within TechLunch we might have a group for food reviewers and one for technology geeks. Finally, and this seems to be one of its key ‘selling’ points, there is the Ning Playground in which users with PHP, CSS and javascript coding skills can clone their social network, tweak the code and design and then re-use. All this is free, supported by the inevitable display of ads, but for a payment of $19.95 a month the ads can be disabled or you can organise the display of your own ads through another service (and thereby get some revenue).

There are some limitations. Firstly, I was disappointed to not be able to just automatically import blog items from this WordPress blog. Although you can display RSS headlines from your blog’s feed, this compares unfavourably with Facebook, which has introduced an application that supports and displays blog items from WordPress.

Secondly, as anyone might, I initially chose to set my new network up in private whilst I fine-tuned the details. Unfortunately, it is now permanently private and appears that once set this can’t be undone. The other problem is that the documentation, especially for developers who want to add features, is woeful as far as I can see.

It may be a bit hard to tell the difference between more established networking sites and Ning, but with Facebook and MySpace there is a single network with many groups (a network of groups), but with Ning there is, in effect, a network of networks each with a number of groups.

Is there space on the Web for this new, niche, form of social network host? The big players such as Facebook and MySpace have millions of users and can perhaps seem a bit impersonal, even daunting at times. One of the groups that Ning seems to be targeting is the business community, who are being urged to set up a social network for their company and its customers.

I think the issue though is about how sustainable all these networks and communities can be. Back in the early noughties I was involved in developing an online community of business people interested in technology transfer from universities – it was hard, hard work to get increasing levels of actual engagement online other than a simple registration. Frankly, it took a lot of personal meetings and events before people were comfortable with the online community. Maybe things are different know – people are certainly more familiar with the concept. But certainly, my recollection is that senior managers of smaller companies are so busy they just don’t have time for this kind of thing. And if they did, they’d go on holiday instead.


4 Responses to “Ning”

  1. Raza Rizvi Says:

    There is *still* a social need to meet people that you want to engage and transact with, and that hasn’t diminished because of the availability of other forms of communication, including video conferencing.

    Having the ability to build your own social network or perhaps a community of customers, in a way that a blog cannot do to the same level of interaction, might be a useful, permanent, more-corporately acceptable form of chat-room any to any communication.

  2. Antony T Says:

    the down side (or up depending on your point of view) is that you can’t get your colleagues/customers/clients a beer through a social networking platform. And another beer. And another until they spill thier trade secrets/gossip…

  3. pdanderson Says:

    Good point Antony. I guess that’s why journalists always like long lunches with politicians etc. I seem to remember reading once that a ‘two bottle’ lunch was a guarantee of some kind of story.

  4. Create Your Own Myspace Layout Says:

    I like Create Your Own Myspace Layout a lot, especially are very nice to look at.,

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